Manitoba Book Awards 2016

stacked books bookplateThe short lists for the Manitoba Book Awards have just been posted.

See them here.

I’m very happy that Put on the Armour of Light is nominated for the Michael Van Rooey Award for Genre Fiction.

It’s also particularly good to see that both indigenous writers and books on indigenous issues are strongly represented.

Congratulations to all the nominees and a special shout out to two who have appeared on portage and slain:

Alison Preston, also nominated in the Genre Fiction category for Blue Vengeance. See my   e-chat with her about Blue Vengeance below, posted Nov. 7, 2014.

Catherine Hunter, nominated in no less than three categories—notably the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction—for After Light. I mused here about Catherine’s mystery fiction in the post of July 16, 2014.


April is Poetry Month

Everyone needs more poetry in their lives and so during April I’m presenting a poem or two by Manitoba poets. “Spring in Winnipeg” by Carmelo Militano could hardly be more timely.

Carmelo Militano was born in the Italian village of Cosoleto and immigrated to Canada at an early age with his parents. The family ended up in Winnipeg, where he still lives. He won the F.G. Bressani award for poetry for his collection, Ariadne’s Thread in 2004. He has since published several chapbooks and poetry collections: The Minotaur’s Keys, Feast Days, Weather Reports, and Morning After You. His latest poetry collection is The Stonemason’s Notebook, forthcoming in May 2016 from Ekstasis Editions. His prose includes the travelogue and family memoir, The Fate of Olives, and the novel Sebastiano’s Vine. Many of Militano’s poems grapple with the tensions in his dual inheritance: the Mediterranean sun versus the chill of a raw spring day in Winnipeg.

Thanks to Ekstasis Editions Canada Ltd. and Carmelo Militano for permission to present “Spring in Winnipeg”, originally published in Morning After You, Ekstasis Editions Ltd., 2014. Photo credit: Renee Beaubien.

Spring in Winnipeg

No quick poems a la Williams for me
written on small medical pads
between choleric babies
and listening about the joint aches of a New Jersey woman
in a deep and cold December.
I am here writing inside the silence of this room
a different kind of whale’s belly
outside the March sun grows with deeper urgency
announces its age with curled hot fingers
but the death of winter is ugly.
Streets are slick with malice
dirty sand and frozen mud have formed an alliance.
The change of light still feels weary
empty trees grey bark greyer
wet a newspaper on the lawn
lies like a wounded and despondent animal
trapped by imperfect snow.
Pooled black water by the curb reflects
a wide sky   fast grey and white clouds.
At night between the thumb and index finger of Orion
the slow spin of stars continue to write for the end of winter.

Winter Hangs On

snow 1b

Much talk yesterday, amid new snow, of the April 5, 1997 blizzard that brought on the flood of the century. Which inevitably leads to thoughts of other great storms. There was the epic March 4, 1966 blizzard, of course. But almost forgotten is the storm of Jan. 10, 1975. It had all the prerequisites too: zero visibility, wind chills dipping to -90 degrees at times, and waist-high drifts of snow. The city was paralyzed for three days. Unlike in 1966, when Eaton’s and the Bay became overnight havens for people stranded downtown, the department stores closed early on Friday night when the 1975 storm began and did not reopen until Monday. The Winnipeg Tribune issued this playful souvenir, which turned up recently during a cleaning binge in a friend’s basement.

Books Have Birthdays Too

fullCoverFront Armour 1On Nov. 29, Put on the Armour of Light was one year old. I’m using the occasion to talk a bit about the second book in the series, which will take up the story of Charles Lauchlan about a year after we last saw him. The book is as yet untitled but because it’s set in Scotland, and because I have to call it something, I’ve been referring to it as “Scotlandia”. It will get its proper title in due course.

I don’t like to talk much about work in progress—in case there isn’t much progress. But I did want folks to know that there is a second book well on the way. All I can divulge at this point is that it will involve bicycles, picnics, considerable Highland scenery, rather less than optimal Scotch whiskey consumption and Charles and Maggie—not to mention the redoubtable Sergeant Andrew Setter—once again caught in the talons of murder most foul. And I’m not just talking about Scottish weather.

Loch Tummel
As to when you might be able to read it, I can only quote the Scotch play. “If it were done when tis done, then ‘twer well it were done quickly.” And no, I don’t know what that means either.

Another Look at Josephine Tey

Anne Morton is one of the most discerning readers I know. Now she’s giving a class at Creative Retirement Manitoba on Josephine Tey, the British crime novelist best known for The Daughter of Time. Though Tey’s books are long out of print, Anne thinks they still have much to offer 21st century readers. See why below.

Anne Morton worked for 25 years in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. With degrees in Classics, English and Theology, she has given courses in English history at the University of Winnipeg’s 55+ program.

The class is on Nov. 9 from 10am to 12 noon. Course information can be found here:


CM: Tell me a little bit about Josephine Tey and her crime novels.

AM: Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. She was born in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands in 1896 and spent most of her life there. She was educated in Scotland and England, becoming a qualified physical education instructor. In 1923 she returned to Inverness to look after her dying mother and then stayed on with her widowed father. Life at home gave her the freedom to pursue her true avocation—writing. Her father died in September 1950 and she herself died of liver cancer in February 1952, at the age of 55.
She published her eight crime novels under the name Josephine Tey. She was also a successful playwright, using the name Gordon Daviot.

As it happens, a biography by Jennifer Morag Henderson, Josephine Tey: A Life, is to be published in November by the Scottish firm Sandstone Press. Here’s the link.

CM: What are the qualities in Tey’s books that most appeal to you and deserve a second look from readers?

AM: I first read Tey, along with other Golden Age crime writers, as an adolescent during summers at the cottage. Even then I found her worth re-reading. “Who did it?” is not much of an issue so knowing what happens does not spoil the books for re-reading. To use a theatre term, her ability to create the mise en scène is remarkable. You get a strong sense of the circumstances in which the characters live—the surrounding countryside, the household, or, as in Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a college, the institution. These circumstances are often restrictive—The Daughter of Time begins with Inspector Grant confined to a hospital bed, for example—and over the course of the novel you see the main character or characters achieve some kind of liberation. This liberation, by the way, is almost never found in marriage. Like her younger contemporary, Barbara Pym, Tey is very interesting on the value of ‘aloneness’ as opposed to ‘togetherness’. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both Pym and Tey wrote novels that are not quite like anybody else’s.

CM: The Daughter of Time, Tey’s most famous novel, was published just before her death in 1951.  What do you suppose drew Tey to write a book about the alleged murder of the young princes by Richard III and why does this incident continue to fascinate people six centuries after the event?

AM: Tey was a Ricardian, that is to say, she believed that Richard could not have been responsible for the deaths of his nephews because he was too fine a man to have done such a dreadful thing. Even in her first novel, The Man in the Queue, we find the theme of an innocent man assumed to be guilty because ‘the evidence’ is against him, and this theme occurs in other novels. In Richard she had what she believed to be a real-life example of this unfairness. As Gordon Daviot she also wrote a play about Richard, titled Dickon.

There’s more than one reason for this continued interest, I think. Shakespeare’s Richard III is obviously one. It’s a great part for a great actor. You can’t take your eyes off Olivier in his 1955 film—he is utterly compelling. The play keeps before our mind the question “Was the real man actually like this fascinating monster?”

Another factor is the pathos of it all – Edward V was 12 and his brother Richard only 9 when they were ‘disappeared’. The two children were a popular theme for 19th century painters such as Millais and Delaroche. Finally, the Richard III Society, which has been around for almost a century, has done an excellent job of keeping the Ricardian flame alive. Their web site pays tribute to Tey for the help her novel has given to their cause. The recent discovery of Richard’s grave and the re-interment of his remains have also kept him in the public eye.

It seems to me that it’s significant that a play and a novel should have so much influence on popular views of Richard. In 2012 the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibit called “Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination.” It included a set of disconcertingly grotesque paintings of Henry VIII and his wives. My first reaction was “But these people actually existed! They weren’t characters in fairy tales.” But then I reflected that in our culture the Tudors have somehow acquired an alternate and ahistorical life. And the same thing seems to have happened to Richard, though his is a dual identity, wicked to some and an injured innocent to others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for having kings and queens; those of us who live centuries later can get an enjoyment out of them probably not available in their own times to their actual subjects.

CM: What can people who sign up for your class expect to get out of it?

AM: I hope they will come away wanting to read Tey, whether again or for the first time.   While the novels don’t seem to have been re-printed since the late 1990s, they are available in the Winnipeg library system. Second-hand or remaindered copies are not hard to find. I have all the novels and will bring them for people to see.

The Daughter of Time gets the star billing. It’s an interesting mixture of historical fiction and a crime novel. I want to put it into context with Tey’s other novels, so that the class might ask themselves if it perhaps tells us more about Tey than it does about Richard. I will also discuss how Tey used, abused and even made up her sources. While I believe, that Tey, like Shakespeare, was free to write as she pleased about Richard, it concerns me that people often refer to her book as if it were a reliable source of information. I enjoy historical fiction (as did my father, who was a professional historian) and appreciate the insight into the past it can offer us. But we shouldn’t ask of it what it doesn’t have to give.

CM: Tey is praised for the quality of her writing. Can you give me a sentence or two that you particularly like?

From the opening chapter of The Franchise Affair, here’s a description of a local High Street, in the late 1940s, apparently little changed by the passage of centuries:

“True, the scarlet and gold of an American bazaar flaunted its bright promise down at the south end, and daily offended Miss Truelove who ran the Elizabethan relic opposite as a teashop with the aid of her sister’s baking and Ann [sic] Boleyn’s reputation.”

The issue of women’s reputations is central to this novel; notice how cleverly it is introduced.

Conversation with Doug Whiteway (aka C.C. Benison)

Ten-Lords-a-Leaping-160I’ve long planned to have a virtual sit-down with Winnipeg crime writer Doug Whiteway and I’m very happy that he has accepted the invitation.

Prior to turning to crime, Doug Whiteway worked as a writer and editor for, among others, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Beaver magazine. He still keeps a hand in nonfiction editing and writing alongside his career as a mystery novelist.

He has published seven mystery books under the pen name C. C. Benison. The first, Death at Buckingham Palace, featured Jane Bee, a Canadian who flukes her way into a job as a maid in the Queen’s household and solves the crime with an assist from none other than Her Majesty. There were two more in this series: Death at Sandringham House and Death at Windsor Castle. Staying with England as a setting, Whiteway/Benison’s most recent books follow the exploits of Father Tom Christmas, the new vicar in the village of Thornford Regis. Twelve Drummers Drumming came out in 2011, followed by Eleven Pipers Piping and the most recent, Ten Lords A’ Leaping. He hasn’t neglected his home town either; Death in Cold Type is set in Winnipeg.

See the C. C. Benison website here: and our e-chat below.

CM: Like me, you chose a member of the clergy as a protagonist of your current series. Father Tom Christmas is an Anglican priest in the small English village of Thornford Regis. What drew you to that subject matter?

DW: I’m not entirely sure I’ve explained it to myself, but even though I’m happy to read detective novels where the investigator is a professional –– either a private detective or a member of a police force -– I’m more attracted to writing a character who is essentially an amateur detective, a somewhat ordinary person who is thrust into solving a crime through force of circumstance. It may be partly that I think ordinary people can solve problems if they put their heads to it or it may be that I don’t want to spend much time in the head of a policeman. I’m not sure. Anyway, what attracted me more specifically to a clergyman is partly that a priest or minister or rabbi has the benefit of being more likely to be granted entrance into people lives and homes than people in many other professions or walks of life. They’re counsellors and problem solvers and, in a village milieu, community leaders, so it seems less likely to strain readers’ credulity if they involve themselves in the resolution of a crime. I’m also attracted to the moral dilemmas that a priest may face. Clerics, I think (though perhaps I’m being unrealistic) are obliged to consider some of the wider implications of their actions and those of others.

CM: The setting in the Father Christmas books feels very authentic to me. How do you get all those details right and prevent Canadianisms from sneaking through?

DW: I think, suffering as I do from anglophilia, that I’ve spent a lot of time either consciously, or just below the surface of consciousness, paying attention to the speech patterns and vocabulary of the British and to various aspects of their culture. It started early. My ancestry is English and Scottish; two of my grandparents were born in the U.K (one in Devon, which is the setting of the Fr. Christmas mysteries); there was very little Can Lit growing up, so a lot of what I read as a child or young adult was produced in the U.K. or set there or the like. Then, when I was a teenager, there was the British Invasion in music and pop culture, which had a reinforcing effect.  I’ve been to England lots of times, particularly during the writing of the Father Christmas series and the earlier Jane Bee series, so that helps in soaking up detail and atmosphere. As for the Father Christmas books, their authenticity owes something to the fact that the fictional Thornford Regis is based very much on an actual south Devon village named Stoke Gabriel, so the street patterns, the major buildings (like the pub and the church) and the landscape is, in a way, a kind of faithful journalistic recording –– only I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent, or the guilty, as the case may be. And, of course, these days, there’s so much available on the Internet. You can download BBC and ITV TV programs easily, listen to BBC live or on podcast, or visit parts of England through Google street view. Even for all that, Canadianisms likely do creep in, but the person most likely to catch them first is my American editor, who’s pretty much an anglophile herself.

CM: It must be the archivist in me, but I love reading Madrun’s letters in the Father Christmas books, complete with typos, of course. Can you talk about Madrun’s epistolary voice and how it came to you?

DWI would love to answer this question thoroughly, but search my mind as I might I can’t recall what exactly suggested an epistolary voice to me. A little of it may be that I wanted to play a bit with the storytelling conventions of the crime novel, but where the notion of letters came from I’m not sure. Clearly, a piece of brain has gone missing. Once I’d determined to have letters, however, I modeled them after the letters my mother and her sisters would write to each other. In the days when long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, they would write frequently to each other, and in a breezy, chatty, completely unselfconscious style, complete with crossings-out and reconsidered thoughts. When I wrote Madrun’s letters, I would try to replicate the way they wrote letters (or the way I imagined they wrote letters); that is, quickly and with no concern for literary effect. Of course, when you’re creating them as fiction for a wider audience, speed and no concern for literary effect go out the window.

CM: Ten Lords A’ Leaping is your seventh mystery novel and the third Father Christmas book. How has the mystery fiction landscape changed since your first book?

DW: I think years ago I would have said the meat of a mystery is the puzzle and the sizzle is the characterization and the setting, but today I would say it’s the other way around (though crime novels with rich settings and fine characterization is the continuation a longish trend, helping a little to erase boundaries between genre fiction and so-called literary fiction.) I think, too, there’s a greater reader interest within Canada, and outside the country as well, in Canadian settings and characters than there was in decades past, not to mention there are more Canadian writers working within the genre than ever before. These are good things. On a less cheerful note, what has changed in more recent years is the increasing difficulty of getting published and generating revenue from publication due in large measure to the consolidation of publishers into larger and larger conglomerates seeking the new blockbuster and the dampening effect of Amazon on prices (great for the consumer, not great for the producer).

CM: How do you feel about the conventions of the mystery genre now? Are you constrained by them, comforted by them, or are you tempted to defy them?

DW: All three actually, and sometimes all at the same time. One of the pleasures of the genre is working within a highly organized structure and recognized conventions. You’re provided with bare bones that you can enflesh with your own characters and ideas. I think this can be particularly useful if you’re starting out writing fiction: there are so many things you have to get right in a novel that will attract readers, why not have at least have some part of it already provided for you? (I’ve always liked the idea of infiltrating genre forms and filling them up with ideas or subversive notions –– not that I’ve ever done it myself!) That said, the conventions can be a bit constraining at times. While rationality lies at the heart of crime fiction, the neat resolution that comes at the end of each novel rarely mirrors what we know real life (so-called) to be, so there are moments when I’d like, say, to write a more ambiguous ending, though I know readers would find this most unsatisfying. I think by and large the conventions have to be respected, so if I find myself tempted to defy them––and I do––then the solution is to work within another genre. (See next question.)

CM: One of your novels, Death in Cold Type, is set in Winnipeg. Do you think you might do another Winnipeg book sometime?

DW: Yes! I’ve completed a manuscript for a novel set largely in Winnipeg and along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg (though there are excursions to Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco and New York). The working title is “Paul is Dead” and it follows two characters who face the consequences forty years later of a crime they committed in their youth, in the late 1960s. It’s more of a howdunnit and whydunnit (whodunnit you’ll learn in the first few pages and the victim’s name is in the title.) If it has to be categorized (and publishers love categories!) it would be in the realm of psychological thriller.

The Sleeping Porch

To beat the heat, our near ancestors loved to sleep outside in the fresh air or as close to outside as could be practically managed.

Thus was born the sleeping porch or sleeping balcony–a large second floor porch, often screened-in, and usually located at the back of the house. My two brothers had bedrooms on the third floor of the house where we grew up. Come July these rooms became as hot as cauldrons. So in mid-June, they would move to our sleeping porch.

Sleeping porches reached the height of their popularity in the years prior to World War I when houses in neighbourhoods like Wolseley and Crescentwood were just being built and sold. A sleeping porch was a definite selling feature as this ad from the Winnipeg Free Press from 1913 shows.

ad for house on Home Street

House for sale on Home Street

Increases in lot size after World War II meant that there was less need for sleeping porches in the new suburbs. The sprawling ranch bungalow with bedrooms on the main floor and in the basement dealt with the problem of heat rising and pooling on upper floors. That coupled with the advent of air-conditioning in the 1960s dealt a fatal blow to the sleeping porch.

But there was something magic about the sleeping porch and I envied my brothers for being able to sleep there. If you could sleep in a tree house, the experience would be similar—up high, surrounded by night sounds, with the moon and stars close, and with bird sounds all around you as the sun came up.

Here’s a modest sleeping porch.

sleepin porch small

And this one is a little fancier.

sleeping porch big

Going the Distance

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Greeks training for the 1896 Olympic marathon

Since the Manitoba Marathon is coming up, I thought I would share some of the research I did for the foot race scene in Put on the Armour of Light.

The first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 featured a race from the town of Marathon to Athens and this race sparked renewed interest in long distance road races. However, the Hamilton Around the Bay Race, at 30 kilometres, was first run in 1894, two years before the Athens marathon and three years before the first Boston Marathon.

It took a while for other cities in Canada to follow Hamilton’s lead. Early running competitions in Winnipeg had taken place on the track at the Old Exhibition Grounds or at River Park during track and field meets. The maximum distance of these races was a mile and a half. And in fact, the running coaches of the day actively discouraged runners under the age of 18 from running longer distances because there was a danger, they thought, of a kind of career-ending burn out.

Starting in 1905 the Winnipeg Telegram newspaper began sponsoring an annual 20 mile run from the Telegram offices on the corner of McDermot and Albert, down Portage Avenue to a point past Deer Lodge, where there was a turnaround. This race continued for at least eight years.


Tom Longboat

During these years, Canadian runners were racking up wins in North American racing circles. Tom Longboat, an Onondaga distance runner from the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation Indian reserve near Brantford, Ontario, won the Hamilton race in 1906 and the Boston Marathon in 1907. He had a successful career as a professional runner, including a world championship, until his enlistment in the Canadian Army during World War I.

Winnipeg’s John D. Marsh was right up there with Longboat. In 1906, Marsh beat the Olympic champion, Alf Sherring, at a 5 mile exhibition race in Winnipeg. Marsh did well in the lucrative professional running circuit all over North American, winning, among other races, the All Canadian Marathon Derby in Toronto in 1909.

May 2 is Authors for Indies Day


May 2 is the inaugural “Authors for Indies Day” in Canada. Writers all across the country will be honouring the independent booksellers who champion their books every other day of the year.

I’ll be helping out at Whodunit Mystery Bookstore on May 2. I’ll be chatting with you punters starting at 1pm. At 3pm, I’ll be doing a talk on Scottish mystery books. And we’ll all have nummies.

Winnipeg is a great book town and we’re lucky to have the number of bookstores we do, small and large. They’re still here in spite of a very difficult environment but we can’t be complacent. Think about what this city would be like without Whodunit, or Bison Books or McNally Robinson.

On May 2, support your local independent bookstore by dropping by and buying a book or two.

See Whodunit? Bookstore here:

See the “Authors for Indies” website here:

The Victorian Back Yard

I was flapping my gums in a recent post about that golden time when we all used to sit on our front verandas interacting like crazy with our neighbours and in general going all Jane Jacobsy. Like most romantic notions, this one needs to be tempered with reality. David, aforementioned walking urban encyclopedia, pointed out to me that there were some very practical reasons why our Victorian ancestors would choose to sit out at the front of their houses, rather than in the back. Those reasons were: the coal chute, the garbage cans and the outdoor privy.

The older neighbourhoods in Winnipeg were designed with back lanes long before the days when car ownership was common. These lanes accommodated the service wagons that collected garbage, brought coal to your house and periodically dug out the contents of your privy. The Victorians would rather have died than talk about the latter, which is what has made research for this post difficult. In fact they did die of typhoid fever in sufficient numbers that the city finally banned outdoor privies and made sewer connections mandatory for property owners. That finally brought an end to the typhoid epidemics that regularly plagued Winnipeg prior to 1910.

I’ve looked for a photograph of an ordinary back yard c 1900 without success. So, meanwhile, here’s another fantastic veranda. It’s Dalnavert Museum, the Hugh John Macdonald house, now taking on a new lease on life under the management of the Friends of Dalnavert Museum.


Dalnavert Museum